Men attend the first Friday prayers of Ramadan at the East London Mosque.

by IMAM QARI ASIM THIS week marks the beginning of Ramadan. For Muslims, it is a time of reflection, spiritual awareness and rejuvenation. During the month, Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sexual relations from dawn to sunset. Certain groups are exempt, including children, the elderly, the sick, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people who are travelling. As the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar calendar, Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar) falls at different times of the year. The hours of fasting are incredibly long during the summer. This year, British Muslims will have their breakfast at around 2am (sehri) and then go without food and drink until 9 pm (iftar). There is no denying that people will feel tired and weaker than usual due to the long hours of fasting, but they will still carry on with their daily lives – going to school, taking exams, working, playing, cooking. Indeed, some of the world’s leading athletes and sports stars have managed to fast while performing at the highest levels. But as Muslims around the world prepare themselves to welcome Ramadan, there is also anxiety and fear. We are all too aware of the recent attacks on mosques. In a world where mosques, churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship are being targeted by extremists, the safety and security of worshippers has become a serious concern for faith communities. Following the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, there was an instant spike in hate crimes reported across Britain – it increased by a staggering 593 per cent. The government recognises the threat, and has supported faith associates to offer workshops training mosque leaders and volunteers to ensure mosques have the right training and support to make their mosques and congregations safe and secure. As chair of the Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB), I have been urging Muslims to take extra precaution when leaving and returning home in the evening from late night (taraweeh) prayers and also advising mosques to make effective plans for the security of worshippers. I have been reassuring communities to remain vigilant, but not afraid of the terrorists who wish to destroy this civilisation of coexistence. We must guard against a weakening of the values that make us a tolerant and welcoming society. Ramadan has Muslim origins, but its message is universal. In the process of restraining ourselves from food and drink that is so readily available to us, we naturally develop empathy for those who aren’t as fortunate. Ramadan stimulates the ethos of sharing and caring, generosity, respect and giving preference to fellow human beings. We remember those less fortunate than ourselves and try to make a difference to their lives. In Leeds, Muslims will be serving the homeless in the city centre and will also be raising millions in charity drives to transform and save the lives of thousands of people oversees. Serving others in hardship and distress is an unconditional moral requirement in Islam. The charity and generosity shown in this month strengthens the human bond and the message that there is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed. In the face of growing levels of anti-Muslim sentiment, when they are being depicted as “the other” by some, one of the most powerful ways to respond lies in reaching out to their neighbours following stewardship and egalitarian values. In the spirit of this sentiment, as part of the Mosque Iftar initiative, mosques across the country will open their doors and invite people from their neighbourhoods to join in the evening feast. Another initiative, The Big Iftar, has also been used by churches and synagogues to invite Muslims into their places of worship. These iftars are aimed at connecting those of different cultures and backgrounds, giving people an opportunity to make new friendships and experience the feeling of community and generosity that are abundantly displayed during Ramadan. Muslims view Ramadan as an opportunity, a tool that enriches our mind, body and soul. It provides us an opportunity to stop, think and reflect. It allows us to recognise the greed within and curtail it by giving and sharing with others. Ramadan is a time of spiritual and physical detox when the focus is on love, charity, kindness and prayer, but this year, safety and security of each other will also be prioritised. Imam Qari Asim MBE is chair of the Mosques & Imams National Advisory Board